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In the attic, with her hina-ningyo, she touched her lips to the cloth of the odairi-sama's robes and dreamt of love, somewhere beyond the red carpet and the customs, beyond the formality of marriage and duty and honor and wealth.


once upon a time, in a land far, far away


She learned how to put on a kimono at the age of ten. It wasn't easy without a maidservant ready to pluck at the sleeves, to guide her clumsy hands when she couldn't find the center of her obi. The furisode was her favorite, but her mother thought the komon was more appropriate, so she tucked away the 40-inch sleeves with well-pressed care, inside the miyatsukuchi and asked her mother to do her hair instead.

The maid ended up doing it all the same, and Kaoruko found something else to learn the next day. It wasn't the same without the touch of someone you love, after all, she reminded herself, and tightened her hold on the sash before she got to work.

Sometimes she felt that her life was one, never-ending cycle. Rinse, drain, repeat. She felt like the centerpiece at the dinner table – pretty to look at, regarded with admiration for a single moment, forgotten, and then replaced for a newer figure, one more suitable, more in accordance to her mother’s whims. As a child, she’d gone along with her mother’s flow. It wasn’t that she felt, instinctively, that traditional was better; if anything, her style of dress, her hair, the severity of all her old-fashioned sense – all of it was a reaction, and her mother never noticed exactly how much she’d wanted to be heard and not seen, to be held close and not touched, lightly, like glass, or worse, like a stranger.

Still, even then, she felt like she’d been asking for more than they could give her. So she didn’t ask.


there lived a princess who fell in love with a prince


"You look like a proper lady now, Kaoruko," her uncle told her, smiling kindly down at her even as Akihiko-niisama, in the corner of the room, blanched. Kaoruko paraded her iromuji around, let the grown-ups flatter and coo at her until they grew bored of it, and scampered off to stick to Akihiko-niisama because he was the only one who remotely even bothered with her.

He was watching over that Mizuki kid -- the one with the ever-present frown and the bad attitude -- so she turned on her heel, ready to find a new playmate, only Mizuki grabbed at the edge of her sleeve, wrinkling the sode. "You look really ugly," said Mizuki, and Kaoruko scrunched up her face, ready to yell and cry about how he was ruining everything, only Akihiko-niisama, with his gentle hands and sometimes scary voice, took her by the wrist and asked if she wanted some pastries.

If Mizuki looked a little panicked, then, well, she relished in it. After all, she really didn't like him.


no; that wasn't right.


Haruhiko was older than Akihiko-niisama, and that was already saying a lot; she'd read of May-December romances in her high school days, when she'd dreamt of shadows with long legs someone called daddy, once, to the more banal, effervescent thoughts of the light of someone else's life, the fire in their loins. She burned the novels in the fire place, wondering if the girls -- girls -- had any right to choose, or if they knew any better.

"You'll get along, won't you?" Her mother fretted, smile strained as the maid poured tea into Haruhiko's barely touched cup. Haruhiko inclined his head to regard her with his eyes, and she knew then that he was not looking at her at all.

She left crescents on her kimono, marks of pity and disdain and the realization that she was never strong enough.


once upon a time, you fell in love.


Her cheeks were red, the first time she asked him to bake with her. Now, they'd fallen into a quiet routine, comfortable, even when Misaki's bony fingers reached over to tuck her hair behind her ear. She relished the touch with the explosion of emotion that threatened to spill out of her mouth, and all she could do was feign anger in her embarrassment; she knew he understood.

They set to work, elbows barely brushing. He'd turned on the radio in an effort to squash some of the remaining awkwardness that came when she'd burst into his room, demanding and starving for affection, for attention, and Akihiko-niisama had looked at her the same way Haruhiko did, all blatant disregard, but there was a difference in there. Perhaps. I know you, I've walked with you once upon a dream, the radio sang, and Misaki looked up from finishing the cream, smiling as Kaoruko hummed.

"Do you know the song, Kaoruko-san?" said Misaki, and Kaoruko's fingers twitched; her smile slipped, in her embarrassment.

"I-it's good," said Kaoruko, defensive. She crushed the mitts in her hand, trying to quell the churning in her stomach, to brace herself if he laughed. If he thought she'd --

"That's impressive," said Misaki, with his barefaced honesty. "I don't understand a single word at all."

They stared at each other, both of them clad in mismatching aprons and palms stained with flour and cake batter. I know it's true, that visions are seldom what they seem, echoed the words, but she didn't hear well, too dazed by Misaki's kindness. "Well," said Kaoruko, finally, "look it up yourself."

Later, when they watched the cake rise like little children waiting for a miracle to come from the oven, Kaoruko imagined Misaki in a haori, and thought happiness was a little like drinking tea with him in the front porch and waiting for the sun to set, in the evening. She would take her hand in his with no discomfort, no pretension, and his palm would be rough from years of dishwashing by hand but she would never complain.

"Misaki," mouthed Kaoruko, "I love you. I love you," and hid the rest of her words behind the strained set of her jaw, the thin line of her mouth.

Only once, and then perhaps never at all.


you thought that loving would have sufficed


The wedding was a disaster.

The groom was handsome and the bride was beautiful and none of the bridesmaids fought over the wedding bouquet. Still, when Kaoruko peered across the reception hall and into the hotel lobby, the flocks of photographers and reporters ruined the facade. She supposed it had something to do with how her socialite cousin Akiko had winded up in an affair with a well-off (and -- here she crinkled her nose -- according to the newspapers, rather well-endowed) company president of some sort and ended up marrying him with a noticeable baby bump. She'd heard their side of the family business wasn't doing so well in the recession, so she wasn't too surprised to hear it.

"I love her more than anything," said the groom, to the reporters. What could he have meant by that, she wondered, when he’d said nothing of duty.

At least the four-tier cake was perfect, even if Kaoruko herself looked like one of those dolls from Girls’ day, the kind she used to devote much of her afternoon arranging and re-arranging until she realized there was only one way to do it, and even then the adults would fix it anyway. She made sure of that when she promised her cousin she would give her the most beautiful cake in the world, if only to save face. It was strange that it was Akiko who'd held far more grandiose notions of sentimentality and romance when they were younger, and now Kaoruko could only feel betrayed that her pragmatism won out. Was being romantic an acquired trait, or did it lose its appeal when you reached a certain age?

"You're thinking again," someone interrupted, and Kaoruko had to tighten her grip on her wine glass to keep herself from throwing its contents in the newcomer's face. How presumptuous of him to slide his arm across her shoulders.

"I do have a functioning brain, unlike some people," said Kaoruko, and shot a glare at -- big surprise -- Mizuki. "What, aren't you supposed to be clinging to Akihiko-niisama?"

He frowned; it seemed like the only expression he could afford to show her most of the time, and she wondered why some people thought it was handsome. "That's cute. Shut up." When she said nothing, he elected to observe the gaggle they could only identify as Akiko's college friends gossiping over the proud bridesmaid who'd caught the flowers, the frail calla lilies that failed to match the color of their gowns. "I didn't see you when Akiko-neesan threw the bouquet. I don't suppose you want to get married at all?"

"I'll only marry for love," said Kaoruko, and she dared to glance at him, briefly. His frown turned contemplative, his sullenness a complementary emotion.

"Huh," said Mizuki. "You really piss me off."

She couldn't help it; he was simply too easy to bait. "I thought the saying was, 'if you love a person, your mood turns sweet'," said Kaoruko, drily.

"Technicalities," said Mizuki, waving her off with an irritated flourish, but even then it was a show he'd perfected for years. He raised his glass; the cuffs of his sleeve smelled of someone else's perfume. "To you, who will never marry."

She turned on her heel and didn't speak to him for the rest of the night.


you loved, in the summer; in winter, you ached.


Dear Kaoruko-san, said Misaki's sprawling mess, too untidy to be called proper kanji, the strokes too child-like and irreverent. Any calligraphy teacher would have been appalled, but it made her blush, still, in spite of the stilted wording. Congratulations on opening your own shop; I was surprised when I heard it from Usagi-san the other week. Someday I'd like to sample some of your pastries, but I know you're very skilled --

She kept his letters sealed in a box; she hid it beneath her recipe books, the ones she'd never opened. He always signed his letters with love, but it would have been too much to expect that he'd meant it, the way she did. For all she knew, it could have simply been the convention taught to him in his formative years, when, as a student, he was too young to realize its significance. And even then, she hoped.

There was no justification to her taste in men; she'd followed Akihiko-niisama's with a blindness she didn't completely realize she possessed. But how could she explain her sincerity, when, with his jumble of ineloquence, his poor sentence structure, his incapacity to be the perfect choice, he had lifted her spirits, had made her feel happier than she had in weeks? Sometimes Akihiko-niisama said she'd loved the idea of being in love far too much, but she knew this was no abstraction, no feigned artlessness.

Sexuality is a traitorous thing that time and effort can repair, someone had told her, once. She considered the hem of her dress, Western, this time, outside of Japan, and thought of suitability and emotion and how she was always wanting, always lacking in both. She had different priorities now -- a store to manage, people to impress, parents to defy, a punk in America to strangle -- but there was the promise of fluidity and flexibility, and Misaki was stubborn but he was gentle and sought to manage his faults to the best that he could. Did she dare call it a fault? No, a weakness of passion, because surely Akihiko-niisama did not love as purely as she did.

Did he?

Misaki-kun, she started to write, and because she had no talent in writing like Akihiko-niisama did, she set her pen down and never replied. Even then, she knew there was no competition, and she wouldn't fight a battle she knew she'd lost before it even began.


sometimes you felt you'd loved to the point of no return.


She turned twenty-five and her mother grew more desperate. They'd long since given up the idea of creating a match between Kaoruko and Haruhiko, and sent her pleas to come to omiais that they felt would solve the problem of their daughter's single blessedness. It was only when her mother suggested that she had a few respectable women in mind that Kaoruko finally gave up and agreed to one, just one, mother!

One dinner turned to three consecutive visitors, and she wondered when her mother became more sly, more determined to sell her off to the highest bidder. She'd sat through the entire charade with an eternally dissatisfied and inattentive expression, one that never broke, to her credit, save for when her last suitor came, and she could only stare in surprise.

"I can only stay for a few minutes," said he, matching her earlier scowl. "It's not like I wanted to be here too."

Mizuki, with his sharp words and his narrowed eyes. His jealousy and pining that resembled a child's. It would have been better if he ended up gay for Akihiko-niisama instead, but at least more obstacles in life only made love seem sweeter. Love she'd harbored for Misaki-kun, of course. Not that she had any to spare for this brat.

"You," said Kaoruko, knuckles white; she didn't notice she'd clenched her fingers into a fist. The last time he called her she hung up on him five minutes into the awkward argument; they always seemed to fight when they'd run out of words to say. If you like me, then just say it, she yelled at him in the middle of an empty street in Fukuoka, and they'd never mentioned it again. She must have left a bruise when she'd hit him with her purse. It was always about hurting each other, between the two of them. Absently, she stroked the back of her hand to soothe the tension.

Mizuki's eyes followed the motion; he pursed his lips and looked like he'd tasted something bitter. "Did you enjoy it, when they kissed your hand earlier?" sneered Mizuki. "I suppose it would be nice to receive someone else's affection when you know Takahashi-kun doesn't swing your way."

A brat. A big, immature brat that was probably stalking her since she was shown to her table, and she wanted to punch him if it weren't so unlady-like. If she were younger, she would have told him off. But she'd grown, and learned how to feel spiteful in spite of her forwardness, learned how to match his provocations over years of dealing with the dissatisfaction of clients, the insensibility of most.

"I won't marry you," said Kaoruko. She wondered if she looked beautiful even when rejecting him; she wondered if he felt more anger over his hurt pride than any real romantic feeling.

"And you," said Mizuki, "won't marry Takahashi-kun either."

She tilted her chin up, to meet his frown head-on. She said nothing, only waiting for him to fumble his way through the conversation, like all their other futile ones.

"Fine," said Mizuki, voice tight and turning away, "whatever. Go get your heart broken. See if I care."

He looked defeated, for once; there was still bitterness there, but how long could he have held on to something unrequited? How long would it take before he would give up?


but



The difference between Kaoruko and Mizuki was that Mizuki set his boundaries so carefully he didn't have time to indulge in the inanities of romance. He loved like a child did, all hurt and tactlessness and selfishness rolled into a big, scattered mess of anger, wound so tightly she didn't know when he would burst.

Not a lot of things made Kaoruko want to go mad; she credited her patience to years and years of bottling feelings up, of temperance and moderation. Still, she had her moments of childishness, however much they shamed her mother. Still, she didn't care.

"Just one meeting," said Kaoruko, "that's all I need. Please."

Her suitcase lay at her feet, overflowing with gifts, now useless to Akihiko-niisama, when he heard what she wanted. Of all the days to be confronted with Akihiko-niisama’s resilience, it had to be now. She shifted, scuffing the heel of her geta on the marble tiles.

"Get out," said Akihiko-niisama, yawning. "Misaki's not here, so if you need someone to play pretend with you in front of your parents, go find someone else."

She should have gotten that jewel-encrusted replica of a bear mauling a wolf with its teeth. "I'm not playing pretend," said Kaoruko, "I'm being serious."

He shifted, to block the door more. "All the more reason for him not to go," said Akihiko-niisama, lightly.

She trembled, furious. "Don't you know how to share?"

Akihiko-niisama crossed his arms over his chest, intimidating, but she knew his vices. She knew his weaknesses. And yet his weakness, he guarded with suspicion and obsession.

"No," said Akihiko-niisama. "No, I really don't."


you burned


She left Misaki messages, on his phone, but it stayed resolutely uncooperative to her needs. Out of a masochistic need to torture herself, she opened her voicemail.

Darling, her mother's voice, this time, I don't see why you're being extremely picky; it's not like I disapprove of all those young men, and Kaoruko turned off her phone for the rest of the day.

She circled around the perimeter of the apartment for the rest of the afternoon, clutching her phone in one hand and her luggage in the other. If she waited long enough, she wondered if Misaki would catch sight of her. If he would come with her home, to meet her parents.

In her mind, she had the rest of their lives mapped out. They would be married, in spite of his lack of nobility or means. In a year, they would get divorced, but remain genuine friends. He would leave her an heir, and she would leave him sufficient compensation for it. That was how the Usami family worked, regardless of lingering attachments, but for his sake, she could put up with it. She could stay true to her mold, if he really had no love for her.

But that's not all there is to it, is it, a small, secret part of her said, because married people don't have to be in love to stay together. You don't have to have kids to make sure he'll stick to you, right?

She squashed the thought as quickly as it came, the sense of shame fleeting, but lurking, all the same.

It rained, at three. She stayed outside, seated on the front steps of the building, the hem of her kimono muddy and disheveled. She'd have to rectify that later. At around four, Akihiko-niisama threw a coat around her shoulders. He took a seat beside her and they watched the rain together, waiting for Misaki like two obedient dogs.

"Kaoruko," said Akihiko-niisama. He could deny his kindness his entire life but she knew, knew instinctively, as concretely as the cloth around her shoulders, the weight of his fingers ruffling her hair, that he favored her, in many ways. "I told you, he's at work. He doesn't have the time for this."

"All I'm asking for is one day," said Kaoruko, stubbornly. Akihiko-niisama sighed.

"One day will stretch into a month, and then a year, and then a kid," said Akihiko-niisama. "Do you want me to grow old and loveless?"

She watched a puddle of water form, at his feet. "I won't keep him for long," said Kaoruko. "I'll let you see him. I'll--"

"You won't get divorced if you marry him," said Akihiko-niisama, "because he's that kind of person, you know."

"I know," said Kaoruko, sniffling. "I know, I know, I just want them to see--"

"No," said Akihiko-niisama, suddenly kind and harsh at the same time, "no, you just want to keep him locked away, just like I do."

He gave her his phone, after keying in numbers he struggled to remember. She stared at his proffered hand, but took it, all the same.

-- because they were both the same, after all.


and you wanted too much


And here she was, back to square one, back to where all the trouble started.

She supposed she could blame Haruhiko for it, wholeheartedly, but it didn't seem right. They were both puppets in the engineered world of sprezzatura, voiceless, but still seen. Even then, would she have found some malice in the scenario if it didn't allow her to meet Misaki, who, in spite of all his faults, his lacking of gentility and propriety, was still inexorably perfect for her future?

She didn't taste the cake he ordered for her. Her fork sliced, neatly, into the cheesecake, but all she could taste in her mouth was the bitterness. Too much cream cheese, she wondered. Or maybe too little sugar. She drained her tea, as if on autopilot. He watched her, moving with minimal effort, the kind of man her mother would have been proud to have as a son-in-law.

She grimaced.

"I don't love you," said Kaoruko, levelly.

"I don't love you either," said Haruhiko. Then he continued to sip his coffee, as if practiced. She could imagine him with someone in the future, but he would never be happy unless it were anyone but Misaki. Both of them, doomed.

“But you will marry me,” continued Haruhiko, resigned; it wore him out, like he’d struggled with some part of himself and emerged victorious and defeated at the same time, “because that is expected of you, isn’t it?”

“No,” said Kaoruko, counting the number of ways she could fold her napkin without being noticed by anyone, much less Haruhiko. “I’m not here to propose to you.”

“Oh?” Haruhiko almost looked surprise, if he were capable of that emotion. “Really, now?”

“Yes,” said Kaoruko, voice clipped. Curt. Precise. Automatic antagonism in response to Haruhiko’s patronizing regard, his treatment of her, like a child. Akihiko-niisama would have been proud of her. Even then, he had never noticed her, had never sought to acknowledge her as more than part of that family, blood and bones but no more important than furniture, or a doll for hina matsuri.

“You’re a very selfish person,” said Haruhiko, “just like Akihiko, I see.”

She said nothing; to deny it would have meant denying herself. She burned to call him out on his own deficiencies, but she was an adult now. She would have to save face. He wasn’t important enough to show weakness to.

“I suppose you’ve entertained notions of marrying Takahashi-kun, then,” said Haruhiko. He set aside his coffee, now grown cold, stale.

Another silence. The centerpiece was cracking; they’d have to repair that, if they wanted their customers to keep coming back, because the Usami family demanded nothing short of perfection.

“Ah,” said Haruhiko, a slant of lips his only gesture of a smile, crooked, smug. “exactly.”

Polite discourse didn’t involve spilling tea in front of a cousin’s face, but suddenly, she was tempted. “It doesn’t matter,” said Kaoruko. “It’s not like that.”

“I’d heard you’ve fashioned your intentions as pure,” said Haruhiko. “Looking at you now, hearing you talk, doesn’t it seem as though you’re only using Takahashi-kun for your own purpose? I didn’t think freedom came at that high a price, even for you.”

She stared blankly at him, before the insinuation finally sunk in. Kaoruko bristled.

Every person had a breaking point; perhaps Haruhiko did, too, only she had yet to find out what it was. Sitting in this restaurant with her cousin, clinking her teaspoon against her cup with dissatisfaction, her heart felt heavy, fatigued. So many things to think of, so many people to get angry at. Her mother, for insisting. Her father, for not preventing it. For their blindness. Her uncle, for his misplaced concerns. Akihiko-niisama, for his selfishness. Haruhiko, for his irritating honesty. Mizuki, for his prickliness, his insensitivity, his inane jealousy. Herself, for being so helpless, unable to move forward, to move beyond where she was.

She could be better than this. She could, if she had more courage, but it was easy to mistake courage for the overwhelming flood of emotions her own frivolities, her inadequacies, pushed towards her.

"I'm not lonely," she meant to say, only, looking at Haruhiko, at his straightforward gaze, at his face that looked more tired than she remembered seeing it, she had to wonder if she'd looked like that, too, without Misaki.

She took a deep breath, and ran out of the restaurant, into the nearest bathroom.


you burned him too


On the fourth ring, he picked up. When he fumbled through his greeting, something in her chest seemed to float; it ached. She itched with impatience, mostly with the sinking realization that if she didn't have the fearlessness now, if she didn't say anything, she would never be able to find enough indignation inside her to do it all over again. So she did.

"Misaki-kun," said Kaoruko, "I love you."

"Oh," said Misaki, "Kaoruko-san?"

"Love you," said Kaoruko, over and over again, "love you, I just had to say it, I was going insane, please don't hang up, please, please, please--"

"I won't," said Misaki. His voice cracked, over the line, and she wasn't sure if she should blame the connection. And then, he said, "I'm sorry."

Her mind seemed to shut down, but her hearing was clear, all other senses heightened, amplified by his voice. What had she expected? Reciprocity? No, not that. In the quiet of the bathroom stall, she shuffled her phone to fit more snugly against her ear. She took a deep breath; she listened to his apologies. They tumbled out of his mouth like words of desperation and all she could do was hear him and wonder why his voice still made her heart soar, why she'd felt at peace.

"Misaki," whispered Kaoruko, "don't cry."

She heard a sob, and pressed her ear closer to her phone. When she moved her hand to adjust it, her wrist brushed against her cheek. It shone -- wet, tasting like salt -- strangely, as if she were crying.

She wasn't; she wasn't.


and it's over now.


In that bathroom stall, she had heard his litany of apologies, his acts of kindness that she was so weak against. Said she, with her proud heart, her unassailable sentimentality, with the most insufficient words:

"It's okay, Misaki-kun. It's okay."

But she meant it.


so try again, once more, with feeling.


She washed her hands at the sink, methodical, but distracted. Rinse, repeat, drain. She didn't go back to Akihiko-niisama's apartment, that night. She checked into a hotel, moving mechanically, answering questions from the concierge with a detached tone, far removed from her surroundings.

She took a bath and left her kimono rumpled on the floor, for the first time. She stayed in the tub for more than an hour, considering the ceiling, before toweling herself dry. When she was settled in her bed, she shut off the lamplight and stared at the window across her. Outside, Tokyo Tower shone, like a beacon, glowing in the darkness of Tokyo's night sky. She was almost asleep when her phone started to ring.

"Hello," said Kaoruko, not bothering to check the screen.

A pause, and then, an exhalation of breath. "Oh fuck," said Mizuki, voice familiar and rough, "oh fuck, I thought you killed yourself."

"I'm not an idiot," said Kaoruko, burrowing deeper into the blankets. She was heartbroken, not suicidal. Did the two things have to go hand in hand, or was it just the case for teenage girls like Mizuki?

"No," said Mizuki, the swell of anger in his voice as timed and precise as any other day, "you're a big idiot, because, seriously? I’ve been trying to call you since yesterday, you have no fucking idea--"

The light outside suddenly grew brighter, sharper. It hurt her eyes. "Don't," said Kaoruko, surprised at how steady her voice came out. How steady and watery at the same time. "Don't."

Mizuki didn't say anything, for a few seconds. Most likely, he was trying to find the right words to say; if it were anyone else, he'd be throwing words of comfort with little difficulty, but because it was her, she supposed, he was trying to measure his words, as if to give them sincerity. "Come on," said Mizuki, awkwardly. "I didn't mean it, okay? You just make me so mad."

"I make you mad?" She said, sitting up, her eyes burning with tears; anger, this time. "I--"

"So anyway," said Mizuki, "I have tickets. To Italy."

Oh fuck. "Mizuki--"

"Look," said Mizuki, hurriedly, "I know you're still not over him and all; last time my sister got rejected I had to hold her hand through the damn process, okay? But. Just give this a shot. Give me a shot. Okay?"

She didn't answer, and Mizuki plowed on. "Please?" He said, sounding too adult, too prepared for the worst, that she couldn't bring herself to hang up.

"Italy?" She croaked.

"Yeah," said Mizuki. "Italy. I'll feed you pasta, if you want. Just you and me."

"I can't -- I can't give too much of myself away," said Kaoruko, voice hitching. Suddenly she knew she was the one limiting herself with her narrow-minded bullishness, her one-track mind. She was stubborn, and Mizuki was too, so it wouldn't be too much of a surprise if he wouldn't agree to her terms, if he wouldn't be satisfied with it. She expected the incriminations, the attacks to her own selfishness; she expected and felt the truth of it all too keenly, with her only defense as pride, not love.

The Usami family raised children who used their pride as their only honor; above all things, Kaoruko was still an Usami, through and through.

Mizuki, on the other hand, was not.

"That's okay," said Mizuki, and she closed her eyes and imagined one of his rare smiles, suffused with feeling, "I figure I can wait."


once upon a time


In the fourth floor of Terminal 1, in Narita, Mizuki touched her cheek with his lips, and said, "You look like hell," and it was then that Kaoruko might have liked him, just this once.


-beyond the formality of marriage and duty and honor and wealth.-